From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame
(posted Wednesday, July 11, 2007)
The Huntress and her Hounds paused to regard what waited for them on the trail. The Huntress was mildly surprised. She had thought that the fighters she had been trailing were much older than these...children. Teenagers, really. One, wreathed in flames, looked otherwise like any of the scarred and tattered ragamuffins on the fringes of the Masters' beautifully corrupted cities. The other two, though--they were different. Clean. Pure. In their faces was still hope, still the capacity for joy, still the ability to believe. Both wore armor of some sort, it looked almost like a fancy costume. But the Huntress knew that as pretty as it was, it must be functional. For all their innocence, these children
Well that wouldn't last long.
The Huntress Miranda smiled long on all three of them. "Hello, sweet things," she cooed. "I am so going to enjoy playing with you."
The boys stirred as if to say something. The girl only regarded her steadily with huge, limpid eyes. Miranda smiled. "Michael," she ordered, calmly. "You and the Pack take the boys. The girl is mine."
The red-haired man, clad head to toe in black leather, smiled and cracked his knuckles. "Yes, Mistress," he replied.
Astra knew that she should have been prepared for this, but it still came as a shock. Standing at the head of a squad of camo-clad fighters were two people she recognized. To the left, in black leather with a collar around his neck and far too many straps, was Michael West--who the rest of her world knew as Kuo. To the right, wearing an obscenely tiny white t-shirt and black leather pants so low-slung that the strap of her skinny purple thong was mostly visible, was Moriyaku. The sight distracted Astra just for one second. My god, how far down does she shave...and what's keeping those pants up?
But all that was less than half a heartbeat. She heard the woman. So. It was going to be one-on-one.
With a mental--
A wave of confusion crashed down on her. An overwhelming command flooded her mind. Kill the boy, He hates you, He's always hated you. Your mother loves him best. Your father spoils him. Kill him!
She exploded the smothering cocoon of commands from within, atomizing it.
Moriyaku's eyes narrowed, and so did Astra's. Now they were going to get serious.
The red-haired man smiled. It was a strange smile; his expression was beatific, as if he was about to do something wonderful. Some pleasure he had looked forward to. He cracked his knuckles again. Aedan waited for him to say something, or telegraph his intentions. He did neither, which is why the flying kick that the man, the "anti-Kuo," aimed at his head came as a complete surprise.
Somehow Aedan managed to twist out of the way of it; his father had drilled the twins in self-defense fighting almost from the time they could walk.
Damnhe'stoofast--- Aedan threw his forearms up just in time to block another kick. This dimension's Kuo was just as quick of and brutal of a fighter as the one from his world. Aedan fired off a message to Astra via the family channel; it looked like Ratt was busy with troubles of his own, so it would be just the twins working together for this. Ma was occupied with the Fallen---he didn't know how she would fight all seven of them, but he had faith in her.
Not waiting for his aggressor to press the advantage he had, Aedan immediately transformed into his Ruktur form. The transformation took place to a concussive blast of dark energy; the martial artist was only stunned for a moment, recovering quickly and loosing a blinding flurry of strikes. Aedan could feel every blow through his carapace, but the damage wasn't enough to force him to be as guarded. Raising his massive claws in an over-head strike, Aedan brought both down on top of the fake-Kuo, dark energy splaying out as the strike landed on his back. Now it's a fight.
The Huntress closed on Astra--not physically, but mentally. Ruthlessly she tore at Astra's memory with a thousand sharp-clawed fingers, wrenching out the memories of--
The Grim Gambol cackled as Astra tried to close with him. If she couldn't defeat him, capture him, he was going to kill all those children--
--the child's dead eyes looked up at her from inside the gaily wrapped box--
--Grim taunted her--
--it was all her fault--
Astra curled in on herself, cowering in terror, eyes streaming tears.
Aedan was trying his best to cover his massive body, but Kuo was just too fast. Whenever he would try to block one punch, three others and a kick would strike him on the opposite side. He was ponderously slow in this form, but made up for it by being able to take the beating that he was getting. Looking to buy some breathing room, Aedan stomped the ground between them, transferring some of his dark energy into the attack. A fissure opened, staggering them both momentarily. That was the chance he needed.
Aedan quickly switched to his normal self, blasting at Kuo with waves of negative energy. Stunned, the brawler's defense became sluggish, with more and more blasts striking him. Aedan dove towards him; he needed to make contact with his foe if he was going to drain vital energy from him. Just as Aedan made the connection and began siphoning lifeforce from Kuo, the hunter snapped out with a vicious backhand, sending Aedan skittering along the ground.
"Oh, that's such a good job you're doing, whelp! Almost as good as Miss Miranda..." The redhead cooed at him from between bleeding lips, his eyes alight with something Aedan really did not want to think about. "Come on, boyo, hit me again! Make me bleeeeeeeed." Faux-Kuo...puckered his swollen, split lips and blew Aedan a kiss.
Aedan rubbed his jaw; he knew that he had lost a couple of teeth with that hit. Blood was seeping out of his mouth, but he wiped it away with the back of his gloved hand. "Gladly." He pulled himself up from the ground; his ribs creaked in protest, and he could feel some very deep bruises already forming. He wouldn't be able to take much more of this evil double's assault, but he had to manage.
Kuo started forward a step, as if to rush Aedan while he was recovering. Turning on his heel, he faked left, then ran as fast as he could ---Howcanhebethatfast?---towards Astra; she was still reeling from whatever mental confusion that this world's Mori was putting her under. Without thinking, Aedan teleported directly into Kuo's path. Just as he reformed on the other end of the wormhole, they both collapsed in a pile, kicking and punching as they slid across the ground from Kuo's momentum. Aedan drained his opponent again, trying to heal some of his own hurt. Just gotta buy some time.
While Ratt wasn't having an easy time, he wasn't exactly in trouble, either. These "Hounds" were chumps; a few of them had guns, but most of them were trying to fight him with knives and truncheons. Too bad for them that he was on fire. Anytime one of them would get close, Ratt would just bear-hug one, and he'd be out of the fight. The problem was, there were so many of them. Half were sitting back, which wasn't smart; it would've been better to try and rush him.
But again, these guys were chumps. Ratt swung his mallet at another of the uniformed goons, crushing his skull inside of a helmet; in a flash of morbid humor, he recalled why John called them "brain buckets". He glanced over his shoulder, looking back over where he had been fighting. Aedan was still dealing with that one red-haired baddie; they were fighting a running battle, with Aedan being pushed back in his "crab" form. The red-haired fighter must not have known very much about Kheldians, much less Warshades; he didn't realize that he was chasing Aedan right over the bodies of the badguys that Ratt had been dealing with. The light suddenly dimmed around Aedan as he activated his abilities, draining what little lifeforce was left in the henchmen, charging himself with even more power. Renewed, he started his own attack against the red-haired fighter; they were evenly matched, for now.
He didn't know where Astra was, though, or Ma; he hoped they both were alright, though. Ratt noticed that he hadn't felt a bullet or knife strike his body for a few seconds; glancing around, he saw he had dealt with the part of the squad that had been attacking him. The last of them were charred, crushed, or dying. Their compatriots charged, but he could tell that they were freaked; it must've been demoralizing to see their "pals" get trashed by a flaming kid with a big hammer.
< KID! Up and at 'er! > The internal jolt broke the Huntress's hold. With a wrench, Astra tore herself loose. Her brain seemed to be on fire, and she felt blood trickling from her nose. The Huntress, eyes gleaming in the moonlight, smiled. "Wouldn't you like to come home with me and play, little girl? We could be such good friends, you and I." Again, Astra was lashed with images of The Grim Gambol, but this time, Astra yielded away from them and they didn't capture her.
But the Huntress had more weapons than just mental. A bright flash in her hand warned Astra just in time, and she transformed to Kurukt. Two throwing knives bounced off her carapace at the same moment as a stunning mental blow struck her mind. The "crab" form was more naturally resistant to such things. But it also was less able to attack mentally. And this form was slower, clumsier, than a human. If she tried to chase the Huntress. the human could run rings around her, tire her out, and then get her when exhaustion forced her to revert to her own human form again. To take down the Huntress, Astra had to fight her on her own field.
With a flash, Astra took human shape again. The Huntress reacted immediately. and a terrible mental pressure rammed into Astra's shields. Astra held them until it felt as if they were about to break beneath the strain, then yielded a little. The Huntress "stumbled" forward a bit, losing her concentration for a moment, letting off the pressure. Then she rammed Astra's shields again. And again, when the pressure became almost intolerable, Astra yielded.
< NOW! > shouted Kyne, as the Huntress made that little mental stumble, and the two of them closed in on her, catching her in pincer-jaws.
And now it was the Huntress who was afraid.
Astra felt her fear, fear that turned to terror. The woman stumbled physically backwards, back until she tripped over something and fell, landing on her rump. Astra and Kyne followed, until they stood over her, squeezing her within her own shields, smaller and smaller and smaller, reducing her from cursing to babbling, from babbling to incoherence, from incoherence to drooling and weeping--
Astra paused. If she had been home--
But she wasn't home. There were no prisons for this woman here. She could render the Huntress unconscious yes, but...there was no one to take custody of her. Nor could she be held safely. And the moment she woke up again, she would call for help and get it, and lead the Fallen and their allies straight to the rebels.
To her friends.
Even here she had never had to kill anyone.
Now she did.
With a sob, she gave the gibbering thing that had been the Huntress's mind a final squeeze.
Something popped, and she felt the Huntress's life slip away beneath her hands.
Aedan couldn't keep this up much longer. He had been stuck in his "crab" form; if he tried to switch back to his human or "squid" forms, he would have been quickly taken down by this world's Kuo. His carapace was cracked in several places from the constant onslaught, and he could feel his energy waning through the breaches. He lunged desperately, grabbing the evil-Kuo in his massive arms; the man didn't stop attacking, instead lashing out with precise elbow and knee strikes. Flinging the fighter away, Aedan hunched over to catch his "breath". The fighter landed expertly, coming up standing out of a roll.
"Oh baby, give it to me!" the fighter gasped, a manic grin on his face. "Harder! Harder! Give me all you've got!" He paused. "Or is that all you've got? Come on, baby, aren't you man enough for me?"
Aedan received the mental cue just in time. Shifting back to human form, he smiled. "Nope. My sister can probably accommodate ya, though."
Astra, high above this world's Kuo in Mefnanim-form, rained brilliantly white bolts of pure Kheldian energy down on the martial artist. Caught flat-footed, there was no place for him to go, no way to fight back; Astra was out of reach. And what had gone for the Huntress was just as true for the faux-Kuo. They could not afford to let him escape. So she did not hold back. A moment later, Aedan caught and held him in a gravitic snare. Now, not only was there nowhere for him to go, he couldn't have run if he'd tried. Withering blasts of Kheldian-energy drove him to his knees, and then down onto the ground. His chest was crushed in gravitic bands, and the concussive force of the energy blasts finished the job.
The last of her energy gone, Astra fell out of Mefnanim form into human, landing heavily beside her twin. Both went to their knees. Aedan reached out, snaking an arm around her shaking shoulders, just as Ratt finished off the last of the Hounds, and his own fires spluttered out. He stumbled over to slump down next to them.
"We had to kill them," Astra whispered. But to Aedan's relief, there was no question in her voice. She accepted it. Terrible as it was, she accepted it, and the responsibility for it, as he, as Ratt, as their mother had already been forced to do.
Out of the shadows just beyond the clearing, like a shadow itself, something rose up.
Whoever it was, was wearing the faux-Kuo's outfit only taken to the extreme. His head was completely covered in a black leather mask, like a Mexican wrestler's mask, only with no opening for the mouth, and with the eyes....also masked somehow. There was darkness where they should have gleamed anyway. In his hands was a drawn katana that coruscated with some sort of dark energy. He was only there long enough for them to register his presence.
Then he was beside them, katana raised over his head. They did not even have time to react, even if they'd had the strength to.
And then JJ was there, with the implosion of displaced air of a teleport.
His fist was pulled back, charged with radiant Kheldian energy. With the sword over his head, the figure was wide open. He didn't have a chance.
JJ's fist impacted his ribs with a sickening sound; not just the ribs shattering, but the spine as well. The man folded in half wetly, flung across the clearing. JJ transformed to his armored form, followed him with a bound, and stamped the man's head with one clawed foot. It was brutal, and horrible, but it was necessary; they couldn't afford to pull punches when not just their lives, but the lives of the people that had cared for them these past days, depended on it.
Astra gagged and looked away.
JJ transformed back to human. He looked down at the thing that had been threatening his siblings, reached down, and pulled off the wet leather mask. Beneath it, the features distorted by damage and death were still recognizable.
In their world, he would have been the Kensei.
Aedan looked from the dead man to the mask as JJ dropped it with distaste. "What the heck was he wearing?" he choked.
The Sarge came up behind them all. "Kid, if ya haveta ask, trust me, ya don't want to know."
"Where've you been?" Aedan asked, breathing heavily. "We've been dealing with these people for the last couple of minutes."
"Had some trouble of our own at the rear of the formation, kid. It's taken care of." The Sarge glanced around at the siblings. "There's four of ya. Where's yer mother?"
"Up ahead," Astra said, panting. "She said not to go there...yet..."